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Autism/MMR Vaccine Study Faked: FAQ

Facts Behind Journal's Claim That Autism Study Was Hoax
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 6, 2011 -- The discredited study purportedly linking the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism wasn't just poor science, it was outright fraud, a leading U.K. medical journal claims.

The man behind the 1998 study, Andrew Wakefield, MD, continues to defend it. But 10 of his co-authors have repudiated it. Last year it was formally retracted by The Lancet. And after a months-long hearing, Wakefield and his senior research advisor had their medical licenses revoked for unethical treatment of patients.

Vaccine-Autism Study Called Fraud

More WebMD coverage of the BMJ article calling a controversial vaccine study "fraudulent."

But now a lengthy investigation by U.K. investigative reporter Brian Deer finds that Wakefield deliberately faked the study. Deer's findings, first published in the Sunday Times, now appear in BMJ -- accompanied by a scathing editorial by BMJ editors Fiona Godlee and colleagues.

"Deer unearthed evidence of clear falsification," the editorial says. "Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield's."

Despite the fact that it involved only 12 patients, the Wakefield study had a huge effect. MMR vaccination rates plummeted in the U.K., Europe, and parts of the U.S. Wakefield continues to have a following among parents who believe, in spite of strong medical evidence to the contrary, that vaccination is a major cause of autism.

The entire affair raises a number of questions. Here is WebMD's FAQ:

Why is the 1998 Wakefield study important?

Children often exhibit the first unmistakable signs of autism when they are toddlers -- an age at which they are receiving their childhood vaccination series. Moreover, some children display regressive autism: They seem normal, but then dramatically lose the ability to speak and to relate to others.

By 1998, a number of parents became convinced that their children's autism was caused by the MMR vaccine. They hired lawyers to sue vaccine makers for damages. But there was little scientific evidence linking the vaccine to autism.

Wakefield's study was the first to suggest a plausible link between MMR vaccination and autism. The study suggested that the vaccine caused a gastrointestinal syndrome in susceptible children, and that this syndrome triggered autism.

The study purported to look at a series of 12 children treated consecutively at a large London hospital. Wakefield and colleagues reported that all 12 children had intestinal abnormalities and developmental regression beginning one to 14 days after MMR vaccination.

Despite the small size of the study, it led to widespread fear of the MMR vaccine. Measles once again became endemic in the U.K. and in other European nations.

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